Patrick Fastest In Daytona 500 Practice

Danica Patrick put down the fastest lap in a pair of practice sessions for Daytona 500 qualifying Saturday afternoon at Daytona Int'l Speedway. (HHP/Harold Hinson Photo)
Danica Patrick put down the fastest lap in a pair of practice sessions for Daytona 500 qualifying Saturday afternoon at Daytona Int’l Speedway. (HHP/Harold Hinson Photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Here’s a novel concept – talking about what Danica Patrick does “on the race track.”

Patrick has been the center of attention at Daytona for everything outside of the race car including her dating relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Finally on Saturday, she became the center of attention for what she actually did on the race track.

Patrick’s Chevrolet was the fastest in Saturday’s combined practices at Daytona Int’l Speedway with a lap at 196.220 mph. That even beat the boss – team owner Tony Stewart – who ran the third fastest lap at 195.363 mph.

To get asked questions about what goes on in her race car rather than her love life was a refreshing change from the grueling questions she was asked during Thursday’s Daytona 500 Media Day.

“Well, I have always felt in my career that when things go well on the track the media responds to it,” Patrick said. “So, I appreciate you all showing up here and thank you. Make sure that you write about how good the crew is that made this car and the last car that was really fast and how strong the Hendrick engine is. I think that is really important here at Daytona. We are going to spend plenty of time the rest of the year talking about if a driver does something at tracks that aren’t speedways. Here at Daytona and then at Talladega it is very much about the potential of the car and the engine.”

The full field of 45 cars entered for next Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500 were on the track at one time or another during the 3 hours and 45 minutes of practice on Saturday. And at the end they were all chasing the GoDaddy Girl.

“I suppose being the fastest going into qualifying is as good as you could hope for,” Patrick said afterwards. “But, I also understand that it’s a whole different day. We could go out there on the track and just for some reason not have as much speed as we had hoped for. We could be in an unfortunate situation with wind or weather, temperatures, clouds, so I understand that. We have done everything we can to prepare for it. We all feel pretty confident, but tomorrow is a different day.”

Patrick was also the fastest driver during the preseason test at Daytona in January so she was able to back up that potential on Saturday.

“We came here this weekend for the race with another car than what we tested,” Patrick said. “We weren’t sure if we were going to bring the same one back or not because it ran so well. This other car was really good in the wind tunnel so we brought it. You always hope that the numbers from the wind tunnel translate to speed on the track and it did. I guess that is kind of the way that it has gone here at Daytona for us is that everything that we think is going to work a certain way works the way we expect it to. What should be faster is and that is not always the case. Everything just seems to be going really smoothly.”

The next step for Patrick and her Cup competitors is the run for the Daytona 500 Pole on Sunday. The fastest two cars will be locked into their starting positions on Sunday and the next four fastest drivers will also be guaranteed a start in NASCAR’s biggest race.

The remainder of the field will be filled in Thursday Budweiser Daytona Duels with the top 15 in each race automatically advancing into the 500. The remainder of the field will be determined by speeds and provisional starting positions.

“Everything that we do is to make sure that we do whatever we can to be on the pole tomorrow,” Patrick said. “That is what we all are shooting for. As I said earlier tomorrow is a whole other day. You’ve got to hope that the weather stays very consistent or perhaps better at the beginning when I’m going to go than at the end. All those things play into it.

“I think being fastest on the chart, just being fast in general shows everyone else how dead serious (crew chief) Tony Gibson is with his guys and how he wants poles, he wants to give me the fastest car possible. He is doing absolutely everything he can and is putting so much hard work into it. I think that just shows his confidence in everyone including myself about what we can do.”

Patrick nearly won the pole at the Indianapolis 500 during her rookie season in 2005 and won the pole at Daytona for last year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race so she knows how to go fast at some of the biggest racing venues in America. But a Daytona 500 Pole would be quite an accomplishment for the former IZOD IndyCar Series driver.

“It would be really nice,” Patrick said. “It is a very big pole of all of them in the year for attention. Especially for GoDaddy who is on the car, people like that, that is who that helps the most. I mean there are other races throughout the year that as a driver you feel maybe more pleased or proud of yourself to get. This one is a whole team effort. I understand I know I don’t give much credit to myself about driving and turning left. And that is true it’s very much about the car and the engine. It is a team effort I understand that the driver can make tiny little differences out there, be smooth, and nail your shifts and being smooth with the wheel. The pole at Daytona is very much a team pole.”

If Patrick can assure herself of a starting position on the front row she will also be able to focus on the Daytona 500 instead of finishing as high as possible during the Thursday qualifying races.

“With the new qualifying scenario I think it would be really nice for all of us to know we were in the race for Sunday,” she said. “Obviously, there is not, there are only a couple of cars extra, but it’s still a nice thing. It’s nice to know as a team, but it’s also nice to know for your partners like GoDaddy and all the other people that are involved in the car. That is who really pays for you to be out there on the track and have their name. Being on the front row would lock in a front row. Being in the top-six would lock in a start which both of those would be very good.”

Joey Logano was second quick in the combined sessions in the Penske Racing Ford at 195.410 mph. Stewart was third in a Chevrolet followed by Austin Dillon’s Chevrolet at 195.380 mph and Kyle Busch’s 195.342 mph in a Toyota.